Dear Dennis

You died last month.

(We all have pseudonyms in this blog – and until now you’ve been known as Rumplestiltskin. But in death I think you deserve the dignity of your own name)

You came to us by accident. The product of an almost certainly incestuous coupling between semi-feral moggies who roamed the back gardens of the rented north London house where we lived at the time. Your brothers and sisters –  all tabbies –  were soon given away but you, an unruly bundle of chocolate brown fluff didn’t catch anyone’s eye. But by then you’d wormed your way into our hearts. You weren’t going anywhere.

I think couples often need a focal point beside each other in their relationships. You were our baby. We took you with us when we bought our first flat together. We adored you. The internet was just taking off around that time. As a project, I built you your own website, full of tales about your ancestors, your favourite songs etc.  Maybe you were the first cat in the world to have his own website.

You came with us when we bought our first home. A first floor flat, remember? Your only access to the outside world was via the balconies. How anxiously we watched your death defying leaps. For months we marvelled at how seldom you used your litter tray – only to discover a few months later that you’d spent the whole winter crapping in the neighbour’s plant tubs. Remember how he chucked a lot of them back onto our balcony?

Then there was the posh girl upstairs who owned that skinny excuse for a cat. You were only trying to be friendly, I’m sure, when you slipped through the cat flap and investigated what was in the food bowl. I’m sure she was exaggerating when she claimed you’d chased her darling onto the top of a wardrobe. As for the bucket of water she threw at you…. missed you by a mile.

That’s not to say you didn’t have your scary moments.  Sometimes you’d get a wild look in your eye and pounce on the nearest ankle just for the sheer hell of it. It was as if you were possessed. You had us cowering under the duvet at times, listening to the sound of your claws raking the fabric.

You never liked travelling, did you. Remember when we went on holiday and asked My Brother the Arms Dealer (M-BAD)  to look after you? He still talks about the terrible stench that wafted from your pet carrier as he drove you away to his flat.  When we moved out of London we had to drug you on the long journey north. You didn’t smell that great on that occasion either.

I’ve struggled to find decent photos of you – you always hated cameras. But I’ve been watching an old video of the day we moved into our new house in the country. You were in it. We watched  nervously as you ventured out into the real outdoors for the first time, like proud parents watching their kid take his first wobbly steps. It didn’t take you long to establish yourself as ruler of the manor.

You had your enemies – remember that ginger Tom – but you held your ground. Later, when you were much older and less feisty another cat invaded your territory. But we were there to defend you. I will always recall the day the kids charged out of the kitchen, armed with a ladel, a rolling pin and a meat tenderiser –  ready and willing to beat the intruder to a pulp.

The kids – they inevitably became our new babies, taking your place in the pecking order. When Groucho was born, you took yourself off in a huff. We hardly saw you for a year. And just when you’d got used to one of the little sods displacing you in our affections, another one would come along. I’m sorry if you felt left out – but you eventually accepted them. Come on, admit it – you actually grew to love them too, though you made sure you never made it too obvious.

You were never one of those overly affectionate cats, the type that rub themselves obsequiously on their owners legs or curl up on their laps. I think you always saw yourself as our true master – a kind of Roman emperor figure, surrounded by idiotic slaves. When you meowed it always had an angry, imperious tone to it.  “Please” or “thank you” were never part of your vocabulary.

Death, I think, is not just an event but a process. You were about 19 years old when you died – but you’d been slowing down for some time. I noticed a change some years ago, when I looked from the bathroom window and saw you sitting just a few feet away from a plump, juicy pigeon. You just sat there watching it. I could tell you were thinking: “I really can’t be arsed anymore”.

In your final year, hardly a day went by when we didn’t curse you. You started peeing around the house – not through incontinence – you deliberately sought out items of clothing on which to relieve yourself on. A stray sock, a bath towel left on the floor. Will we ever forget that fraught morning when we discovered you’d emptied your bladder (with pinpoint accuracy) into Groucho’s school shoe.

The vets told us you had kidney failure. You stopped going out. You spent most of your days and nights curled up on your favourite spot on the sofa. We tried to mentally prepare the children for your final demise. “When Dennis is dead…” was a phrase that was often bandied about. But as it turned out we weren’t prepared at all. I was in denial, I thought you would go on forever.

Those last few days were terrible.  You’d stopped eating. You knew you were dying. We’d find you curled up under the bureau in the living room. Cats do that apparently, take themselves off to a dark, quiet spot to die. We debated whether we should take you to the vets to be put to sleep but we dithered. You didn’t seem in pain and we knew how much you hated car journeys. Maybe you would soon just slip away, curled up in your favourite spot on the sofa. It’s better to die at home.

I found you when I came back late from work. Everyone else was in bed. Your paw was stretched out in front of you in a slightly unusual pose but your eyes were shut and you looked just like you were sleeping. When I felt you, your body was already stiff. I knelt down and planted a kiss on your head.

I never could have predicted how upset I would be. That night I stared in the bathroom mirror and watched my face crumple, the tears rolling down my cheeks. For days it went on. This is ridiculous, I told myself. A middle aged man, his voice constantly cracking with emotion every time he talks about his dead cat.  We wrapped you in a towel and I buried you deep in the garden, at that spot where you often liked to curl up and warm yourself in the sun.

I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on why your death affected me so much. It still affects me – writing this now I can feel the tears welling up. It’s crazy, I know. You were just a cat, a very old cat. You’d had a fantastic life, you couldn’t have asked for more – but your time had come. It comes to all of us.

But, thinking about it, maybe that’s why I was so upset. You’d been a part of our lives for so long, almost the entire time that Khaleesi and I have been together. You were an important part of our story. It was almost impossible to think of our family without including you in it. And suddenly you weren’t there anymore. It reminded me that nothing is permanent. We are all mortal, we will all die. You weren’t just a dead cat – you were a reminder that all the bonds of love in our lives will one day be broken by death.

Is that a depressing thought? Well yes, it was. For a week or so I grieved. It felt as if all the joy had been sucked out of me by a bunch of Dementors. But then a strange thing happened. The overwhelming sadness started to lift – and in its place came something different. The realisation that, even in death, my old cat has something left to teach me. That life is short and time runs out quickly – but I’m not at the end of the race just yet. It’s too early for me to curl up on a metaphorical sofa. There are things I need to do, things I need to experience. Carpe Diem and all that.

Oh Dennis, you would not believe the change that has come over me since you left us. At work, for the first time in years, I’m coming up with ideas, thinking about my career. At home too, there’s a new determination to do better, to fix the things that need fixing. At night, I’m not sleeping because my mind is racing. In the mornings I’m eager to get up and get on with life.

When you were alive, Dennis, you were often referred to by your nickname “That bloody cat!” You drove us nuts at times, you cost us a fortune in cat food – and you never gave us much back in terms of outward affection. But we know you loved us – and we loved you. We will never forget you.

Sleep tight old friend.

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